Sunday 29 September 2019

Not Pulling the Trigger in Stoke Central

Choo choo! The Reselection Express is pulling into the station, but how do we reach our desired destination? The record so far is much more miss than hit. Diana Johnson in Hull, acting as if a minor royal has died, that Margaret Hodge was triggered by her CLP is on the hour every hour on BBC News. Luminaries like Harriet Harman, Tom Watson, and David Miliband have whinged and moaned about it. Tough. When you're one of the most consistently awful Labour MPs, you can expect years of scabbing on the membership might catch up with you. How she will manage in her first selection meeting for 25 years will be interesting, and one hopes the good members of Barking find Hodge wanting and choose someone else.

With far less fanfare and away from the media's gaze, Stoke Central Labour Party completed its trigger ballot process this last week. And as you can surmise by the absence of headlines, our MP Gareth Snell made it through the three branch meetings with barely a scratch. Many congratulations to Gareth. How he did, despite being a regular Brexit rebel and even abstaining on the vote to seize control of the order paper to, um, prevent a no deal Brexit, offers plenty of salutary lessons for MPs fretting about their own trigger ballots ... and Labour activists who'd like to see them face a full reselection meeting.

The first is something no sitting MP can find a fix for if they haven't done it: a hands-on and consistent approach to local campaigning. As noted previously, even for self-interested reasons it pays for MPs to not only take an active interest in their CLP, but position themselves as organisers of it. And this is what Gareth has done since his election at The Battle of Stoke Central. Unlike his predecessor, who did campaign but was fairly hands-off when it came to helping out councillors, Gareth regularly organises joint door knocking and leafleting sessions on a rotating ward-by-ward basis. And so the party's messaging is getting out, both MP and councillor are getting their faces known on the doorstep, casework is picked up and, unsurprisingly, quite a few people feel obliged and want to thank him for backing them. As one Corbyn-supporting comrade told me after our branch's trigger meeting, he felt voting for reselection would be like doing the dirty after the regular campaigning support he's provided. It's not exactly string theory, then. If you support your local party and its activist efforts, it in turn will support you. Wherever the MP doesn't show their face or is a bit of a Chris Leslie or a thwarted heir apparent, their distance will work against them and triggering reselection becomes much easier.

The second is organisation. MPs who organise properly will win, and those who don't won't. The same goes for the members who are pushing for reselection. Having sat and participated in many a selection meeting these last nine-and-a-bit years, it always tickles me how many members come out of the woodwork who are never seen from one selection meeting to the next. And that was true of my branch meeting. Lifts had been arranged and new faces emerged. Clearly there had been an effort put together to boost turn out, which of course is what you'd expect. Those who argued for reselection were not so organised - not even a Momentum email went out to its supporters living in the constituency. Therefore, if you want to win your reselection no one is going to do the organising for you. Two years on from the general election, the mass membership won't simply turn up to the meeting unless an effort is made to mobilise them. Additionally, some thought has to be given to how the reselection is approached. The guys, and they're mostly men, who kick up a stink in every constituency or branch meeting, have a tendency to make long-winded speeches and are what you might euphemistically describe as a "bit Marmite", these comrades should not be leading the charge. Indeed, a period of silence on their part would be most welcome. Instead, comrades without obvious axes to grind, have a bit of moral authority, or indeed tend not to speak too much in meetings, these are the best advocates of the reselection case. Not enough Labour people read a room before they speak, but if you're serious about winning people over you need to learn to.

On the arguments themselves, I can't say it was easy making the case for reselection in my branch meeting. I've spoken highly of Gareth in the past, have known him for yonks, and we shared an office for two-and-half-years working for the blessed Tristram. I was at his wedding, he was at my 40th. And so arguing for a vote where your friend might lose his job is never pleasant. Which is why reselection as a matter of course is more preferable than the hard job of arguing for a negative, and why our friends the Labour right cling to the trigger ballot process like a security blanket. In the three minutes allotted to members to debate the merits or otherwise of reselection, I made three points making the case for proceeding to a vote. The first was on the basic accountability of the process, that all of us have regular job appraisals and so MPs shouldn't be any different. The second, anticipating the most common argument likely to come up, was how the reselection process is not a distraction from the job at hand but part of tooling up the party prior to the imminent election. When members participate in selection meetings and have a hand in choosing their candidate, they can feel ownership, feel like the party has re-engaged them and be more likely to get involved in the campaign. This is reselection as necessary renewal, as a positive good for all seasons. And the last pertained to the politics of Gareth's approach to Brexit. While it is the case the constituency voted leave, like elsewhere the majority of Labour's voters did not. The problem of accepting any Brexit short of a no deal is this does not placate those ex-Labour supporters who haven't voted for the party for a decade or more, while running the risk of alienating remain voters who, at the very least, would life a soft landing and not the hard exit of Theresa May's miserable deal. In other words any Labour MP who does this in a marginal seat is running the risk of triangulating defeat. Other arguments put for reselection focused on specifics of casework, and the poor look of having a MP regularly at loggerheads with the party on the defining issue of the moment.

And the arguments against reselection? They were as you would expect, and have no doubt got aired and will be aired at every trigger ballot meeting wherever they take place. Gareth has a good local record. Gareth is very supportive. Gareth is a good campaigner. We haven't got time for a selection with an election due. Some comrades even said they agreed with all the points but, ah, "now is not the time." And these were not all on the party's right by any means. Such is the advantage of incumbency. Had the trigger meeting taken place a full 18 months before an election, the same argument would surely have cropped up then too. Having good lines and political positions argued persuasively stand more of a chance where the constituency party has a lively programme of policy development and political education, precisely because the distraction argument draws on uncertainties about the situation, the anxiety of who might be the candidate if the MP is deselected (will they be any good? Are they a decent campaigner?), and the rightful instinct of wanting to take the Tories on above all. This is politics working at the level of the doxa, the unthought, unarticulated, but very much felt. In my branch meeting, my attempt to get round this - a combination of talking up the positives to chase away the fears, coupled with political critique raising serious concerns with local strategy - wasn't enough to break inertia and loyalties. Depending on the MP though, other arguments that reach into the gut might work. For instance, bringing it back to Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and asking assembled comrades if they think their MP is going to cooperate with/back him to become the next Prime Minister in the event of Labour winning the biggest party prize or getting a majority in the next parliament?

These then are the lessons from the Stoke Central trigger ballot experience. If you want to win, you need to organise, act persuasively, make a positive case for reselection where possible, think about how you're going to limit the efficacy of now-is-not-the-time, and arrange arguments appealing to the stomach and the heart as well as the head.


Patrick Byrne said...

Excellent analysis Phil.
It provides yet more evidence of why Open Selection every parliament is needed rather than this negative and personalised trigger ballot process.
Pat B.

Boffy said...

It sounds like what Stoke Central comrades are looking for is a social worker rather than a principled socialist politician! No wonder Labour and working-class politics is in such a god awful condition.

Boffy said...

Its also an indication of how Lansman's undemocratic Momentum company is pretty useless and probably in decline. It shows the real left in the Labour Party needs pretty damn quick to get itself organised democratically and effectively.

Anonymous said...

Why all the fuss- Councillors have to put their name forward to considered again each term. Most of them also get elected again- despite some differences they may or may not have with some local members etc. Good practice I think. I live in Stoke on Trent and I am a party member albeit not the same constituency as this MP- most folk locally think the MP in Stoke Central has worked out fine. BTW, thanks again Phil for a good read.

Anonymous said...

Campaigned for him through gritted teeth and he lost me when he won the election by an ill chosen remarks.if he stands again here he will lose the election.

Boffy said...

"most folk locally think the MP in Stoke Central has worked out fine"

I doubt the majority of Labour voters in his constituency, 60% of whom back Remain, think his right-wing nationalist politics of voting with the Tories for a hard brexit, and to keep the Tories in power think he's worked out fine!!!

We'll see at the GE. But, given that Labour's poll share was 50%, and 60% of that 50% support Remain, and support for Remain amongst Remain voters is hardening, then that means that of that 50%, 30% constitutes Remain supporters.

If all of that 30% went to the Liberals, it would put them on 38%, and drop labour to 20%. Even if the Tories pick up no additional Brexit votes, their 45% would be enough for a clear win in Stoke central. If, only half of those Labour Remain voters switch to the Liberals, it drops Labour to 35%, raising the Liberals to around 23%, again allowing the Tories to win a clear majority with their 45%.

But, in fact, it only requires 20% of the Labour remain supporters to switch to the Liberals for the Tories to win. That drops Labour to 44%, raises the Liberals to around 14% and again lets the Tories win with their 45%.

Given that surveys show that 60% of labour's 2017 vote will not vote Labour in the enxt election, I'd say these latter scenrios are extremely conservative in the devastation that is going to be inflicted on Labour in seats like Stoke, where its Remain supporters will desert in droves to the Liberals, letting in the Tories. The same calculations apply in Stoke North. A look at what is happening in Wales with the surge in support for Plaid, and in Scotland where Labour will be annihilated by the NP, indicates what will happen in England, but with the liberals picking up those Labour votes.

This could take Labour back to the kind of position it was in in the first half of the 20th century.

Anonymous said...

Phil - You often write 'May's miserable deal', as if some deal would be fantastic:, but political positioning up to now aside, what is there in the deal to object to? Debts are paid, the Irish backstop means we default to remaining but with no vote (not in itself a sensible aim, but not economically terrible) in the unlikely event that we cant negotiate our way to any of the actual trade deal options like Norway or Canada, and the rights of EU citizens are protected. It'll only be a Tory Brexit if the Tories get to negotiate during the transition period, otherwise it'll be a Labour Brexit.
Johnson has united the Leave vote, Labour's only hope of uniting the Remain vote was to give it nowhere to go and whip for May's deal, once May had gone, and before a GE. Moreover that would have split the Tories, with the ERG crying betrayal and Farage campaigning for repudiation.

I can't see even the most energetic campaign saving them now

Anonymous said...

Ah, our "anonymous" concern troll is back for a bit more concern trolling.